Weather uncooperative for scheduled Big Pine burn

By Steve Estes

Officials from the National Key Deer Refuge yesterday cancelled a planned controlled burn for a 10-acre unit east of Key Deer blvd. between Mahogany and Big Pine Street.

“We just decided that the day of the burn wouldn’t meet the parameters we had established,” said Refuge Fire Specialist Dana Cohen.

Those parameters, established last year after a prescribed fire got away from refuge personnel and scorched 100 acres surrounding the iconic Blue Hole, include at least normal rainfall for the season, a half-inch of rainfall within 24 hours of the ignition, wind in a direction to limit exposure to residences and wind under 12 miles per hour to prevent the fire from escaping the perimeter. The guidelines also call for humidity levels above 50 percent.

Cohen also said that the ground-cover fuel load had to be wet enough to sustain a low-burning, slow-moving flame.

“We had thought that the wind would come later during the weekend and that the rain would come sooner than the weekend,” said Cohen. “That didn’t happen.”

Wednesday passed through early evening at least (when we went to press) without any rainfall, negating the half-inch guideline.

The canceling of the burn didn’t concern a group of local residents who call themselves the Pine Rocklands Citizens Task Force.

That group has asked the refuge to establish even more stringent guidelines before igniting a controlled burn, and to even study the possibility of not using controlled fire at all as a tool for habitat management.

If the refuge must decide to continue burning, the group asks for “wetter” parameters.

The task force suggested to the refuge that it have at least three inches of rain in the two weeks preceding the event with a half-inch the preceding 24 hours.

The group asks that no burns be conducted during drought conditions for any period, and that humidity levels be 70 percent or higher.

Burns should be contained to 15 acres or less, the group suggests,

The burn planned for Thursday was 10 acres that had been burned just three years ago, but the second and third burns proposed for this season were half of a 90-acre tract west of Pine Heights Subdivision. That was the housing development evacuated last year during the Blue Hole fire and residents were understandably leery of the refuge igniting another fire in close proximity to their neighborhood.

The task force also suggests that wind speeds be less than nine miles per hour.

Cohen said the new parameters include better trained staff in place for any burn and a new set of communications protocols between geographically divergent groups at the perimeter.

The task force says that the refuge had promised to speak with them about the future of controlled burning on Big Pine Key, but that talk hasn’t yet taken place.

With Thursday’s cancellation, it may also mean the cancellation of the refuge’s entire proposed burn program for this year, said Cohen.

“We thought we had a good window, it didn’t materialize,” she said.

Current Refuge Manager Anne Morkill will be leaving the post for a job in the San Francisco area at the end of this month, and the refuge staff has other priorities to wrap up before her departure, which will probably kill the rest of the burn season, said Cohen. The burn season is generally considered to be June through September.

“The wildfire season out west is beginning to ramp up again and a lot of the assets we would need here will be committed there,” said Cohen. “I’m not sure we could pull them all together again on short notice.”

Refuge staff has maintained that prescribed fire is the most cost-effective way to replenish sensitive habitat areas for the betterment of the endangered species that call Big Pine home.

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